Entrepreneurship for Public Safety


“Come or kill. Come or kill.”

This was the siren song the self-styled Islamic State broadcast two years ago that attracted over 200 Americans to travel to Syria and Iraq to join its supposed caliphate.

According to FBI Director James Comey, this call strained the FBI’s capacity to identify and investigate all of the individuals who were intent on traveling abroad to engage in acts of terrorism.

“The FBI was strapped,” Comey observed at a recent conference at the University of Texas in Austin.

Yet, due to the dogged work of U.S. law enforcement and homeland security leaders, as well as the U.S.-led international coalition that is taking the fight directly to ISIL, the terrorist organization has largely lost its ability to attract Americans to Syria in large numbers.

As we have come to understand in the 16 years since 9/11, however, terrorism is a persistent and dynamic threat, and in the wake of the “come or kill” siren there emerged a different refrain, simply: “Kill where you are.”

As evidenced by attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, and most recently London, today’s threat environment is characterized by individuals who are inspired by violent political ideologies and enabled by technology. These actors combine sophisticated communication technologies with relatively low-tech approaches like using knives or renting a truck to plan and carry out attacks in our communities — with the combination making detection of these threats exceedingly difficult.

This type of terrorist entrepreneurship has, in effect, reduced the barrier to entry and unit cost of terrorism to such a level that one individual can now have a disproportionate impact on public safety.

Confronted with an entrepreneurial enemy, local officials and national security leaders should encourage an equally entrepreneurial approach to public safety. This can be accomplished by reevaluating security agencies’ talent management practices, business processes, and operating concepts — reorienting each, as needed, to meet the demands of today’s threat environment.

Fostering an entrepreneurial culture requires effective talent management practices that promote the traits that are conducive to such a culture, like creativity and risk-taking. However, often the same traits that make for an effective special agent or investigator may not be the same ones that make for entrepreneurial public safety managers.

In industry, managers view their role less as administrative task managers and more as orchestrators who encourage collaboration among and across functional teams. They evaluate employees against their contribution to the organization’s mission, and focus on matching qualified people with the right project.

Business processes may also be reevaluated to ensure that they are generating the necessary capabilities. For example, the FBI is modifying its approach to private sector engagement, taking a customer service-oriented approach like embedding agents on-site within private companies to enable specific private sector capabilities and deliver business value to private sector partners. Such an approach is increasingly important as terrorist entrepreneurs continue to target privately owned facilities, leaving the private sector as both the first casualty of an attack, as well as the de facto first responder before public safety officials arrive.

Finally, security organizations should consider reassessing their operating concepts to ensure that they allow for adaptability in an ever-changing threat environment. In the private sector, many companies have adopted a horizontally integrated model to navigate a dynamic global marketplace. Such a model, with its relatively flat management structure and amalgamation of similarly skilled personnel distributed across the globe, empowers lower-level employees to make sound strategic decisions and adequately service local communities.

In the public safety arena, more emphasis can be placed on developing partnerships with local business leaders and non-traditional public safety stakeholders — such as mental health practitioners, human resource personnel, or civic leaders — who can pursue creative, non-governmental approaches to public safety challenges. These stakeholders can also act as force multipliers for federal law enforcement and homeland security agencies, which do not have the resources to investigate every potential threat.

As talent management practices, business processes, and operating concepts are reevaluated, it will be important to develop learning mechanisms that allow an organization to capture and disseminate best practices. It may also be necessary to develop incentives for out-of-the-box security approaches, establish responsive feedback loops for lower-level employees to contribute to strategic-level initiatives, and consistently reexamining decisions (whether policy, financial, or strategic) in light of changing circumstances.

“The so-called Islamic State will be crushed,” Comey asserted in Austin. “But between the fingers of that crush will come hundreds of people” who are intent on doing harm, and this is “the future we worry about every single day.”

By embracing a process of continual improvement and encouraging a more entrepreneurial approach to public safety, U.S. security agencies will be better positioned to recognize and manage Comey’s sober outlook.


Gen. (ret.) Norton Schwartz was the 19th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force and is the President and CEO of Business Executives for National Security (BENS). Norman C. Chambers is the Chairman and CEO of NCI Building Systems and a member of the BENS Board of Directors.

Image: FBI